Monthly Obsessions – November 2022

This month started out ’80s and ended up ’10s. “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” is so, so catchy. I had to keep stopping myself from belting the lyrics at work. It’s also weirdly euphoric for the subject matter. Maybe it’s the stadium-sized production.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned Alex Melton before; he’s appeared on at least one other Monthly Obsession playlist. His cover of “Iris” is beautiful. It retains the emo of the original (“yeah you bleed just to know you’re alive”) while creating something nearly profound.

Speaking of “oof” songs, I don’t know why, but “Back In The High Life Again” just gets me. It’s both hopeful and wistful. Also, Steve Winwood’s voice was tailor-made for easy listening.

History Lesson: Frat Rock

I listened to a lot of frat rock relatively recently, so this post has been on my mind. The genre always makes me think of Animal House, which perhaps isn’t surprising, given that “Shout” plays a prominent role in the plot. It might surprise you that “Shout” counts as a frat rock song in the first place, but it does. The loose criteria seems to be simplistic lyrics that are easy to memorize, along with chords that are equally simple and easy to memorize. I did a history lesson on surf rock not too long ago, and this post could be considered a pair to it: surf rock’s twangy, vibrant guitar (think “Miserlou”) appears in frat rock as well.

The ur-example of frat rock is “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen. It’s been the target of many urban legends about just what was in those lyrics. Regardless of the actual content, they were investigated by the FBI and banned from many radio stations as a result of those rumors. I like “Louie Louie” a lot. There are similarities between it and “Twist and Shout” by The Beatles, not least in the ragged, ill vocals of John Lennon.

The 1960s came and went, and frat rock eventually evolved, as genres do. It became punk: the guitar turned more raw, the lyrics even more abbreviated. As a genre, frat rock doesn’t really exist today, except in echoes within garage rock.

Below are a few of my favorite frat rock songs.

Monthly Obsessions – October 2022

The Replacements were the big thing this month. I mainly listened to Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was, which is their remastered “greatest hits” album. Two songs off of that appear below. “Stumblin’ Home” was a recommendation from a friend, and boy is it catchy. I refuse to be shamed for my love of One Direction; “Hey Angel” is probably one of my favorite songs of theirs. The Outfield was a surprising addition. One of my best friends loves them, especially their classic “Your Love”: “you know I like my girls a little bit older” and the melancholy of that song. I guess it’s one of those things where you’re inspired to look up an artist and just fall down the rabbit hole of their other songs. (Happens to me all the time.) If you haven’t heard the Beck remix of “Get Some” by Lykke Li, do yourself a favor and put it on repeat. It makes me feel cool. Rounding out the month was frat rock, which I should do a history lesson-style post about at some point.

Once again, it’s a grab bag of genres and decades. What were your favorite songs this month?

Favorite Bands: The Naked and Famous

So I’ve had “Rolling Waves” on repeat around here lately. (I mean, always, but moreso recently.) It got me thinking that I haven’t really “dived” into what I love about the band itself, as it were. I’ve talked about other favorite bands in the past, such as The Replacements and Brakes and, always, The Mary Chain, but never this one.

I first heard The Naked and Famous back in college. Their debut, Passive Me, Aggressive You, was actually new territory for me at the time. I was still exploring my music tastes; I’d come out of my indie summer listening to Cults and Treats and Touchdown. Passive was indietronica that offered up distorted vocals and guitar. Shattered in the most thrilling of ways. And it felt like college: I mean, one of the songs is even called “Young Blood.”

I don’t have memories of when I first heard In Rolling Waves. I like it better than Passive, although “Girls Like You” is amazing. I think In Rolling Waves is just so epic; it’s TNAF bursting out of the mold they set for themselves with their debut. There’s no 8-bit distortion to be found on the album; instead there’s acoustics and the Wall of Sound tinge that’s become TNAF signature. I mean, “Rolling Waves” literally sounds like waves crashing when the chorus hits. “A Small Reunion” and “I Kill Giants” get in on that action as well.

TNAF proved themselves able to slow things down, though, with “A Still Heart,” which is acoustic covers of their most well-known songs. You really get to appreciate the lyrics. It’s interesting to hear the slow buzzing that’s another TNAF trademark become translated into guitar lines.

As for their lyrics themselves, I find them moving. They’re self-reflective and discuss a weird mix of letting go, throwing yourself into the new, and celebrating the past. In “A Small Reunion,” it’s “here’s to me/and here’s to you.” It’s in that spirit of self-reflection that I’m writing this post, I suppose.

Have you heard any of TNAF’s work? What are your favorite songs or albums?

Monthly Obsessions – September 2022

Today’s retrospective is interesting because the playlists are usually half this length. I attribute the longer playlist to a writing project I’ve been tinkering with. I find background noise both helpful and inspiring.

I’m not able to pick out any themes this go-round, other than the presence of The 1975. I hadn’t listened to them in ages. It’s just one of those things where I’m reminded of an artist’s song and then go down a rabbit hole to listen to the others. (Also, remember when I featured “The Sound” as a new music recommendation? Hard to believe I’ve had this blog for this long!)

“So Blue” by The Jades is on here because of the Lou Reed exhibit I went to a few days ago. It was his first band. Naturally I had to go look it up after I came home from the show. “So Blue” is probably my favorite of his early releases. His voice is actually very well suited to doo-wop. He’s singing more than the softer talking style he adopted later in his career.

I have to laugh at “The Joker” because while it’s a great song, I have to file it under “lyrics I didn’t understand when I was younger.” I loved the chorus – “I play my music in the su-u-u-un” – but I didn’t know what a “toke” was. So I’d just be singing “I’m a midnight toker” as innocently as can be. Ah, memories.

Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars Exhibit

I was in New York City yesterday. As part of my visit, I made sure to see the exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts that focuses on Lou Reed’s life and career. It’s titled “Caught Between the Twisted Stars” after a line from a poem that he wrote. I’ve wanted to see the exhibit ever since I saw a headline about it in the New York Times months ago. This was my opportunity to literally immerse myself in learning about an incredibly influential artist and musician.

The exhibit has prominent disclaimers that it is for mature audiences only, and that the opinions expressed may be outdated or offensive. I thought this was nice; rather than being preachy, it was an acknowledgment of time passing. Perhaps this was silly, but as soon as I even saw the row of exhibit guides, I got excited. I got to “be Clara” as a friend said: I went to the exhibit alone and could take my time in soaking up a part of music history.

“Caught Between the Twisted Stars” begins with a video of Lou Reed reciting the poem from which the exhibit gets its title. There’s also a brief biography before there are photos and promotional materials for The Velvet Underground. The exhibit wasn’t fully chronological: it kind of jumps back and forth through time. Each part of the exhibit seemed to be organized more conceptually than anything else. Photos and lyrics from The Velvet Underground are mixed with demo tapes from Lou Reed’s folk era. Later, the exhibit delves into his poetry: it talks about an influential professor from when he was at Syracuse; there are copies of his published poems; and a few handwritten lyric sheets. (Is it just me, or do all artists seem to have bad handwriting?)

I liked the way the exhibit concluded. It had a bookshelf behind plexiglass with letters from Jimmy Page and Paul McCartney as well as old 45s; the conceit appeared to be that it was part of his house. Fanzines were laid out on a desk. Old yearbooks from 1958 were open to pictures of Lou Reed in his first band, The Jades. (This, of course, prompted me to look up those recordings. I’ll talk more about that in my Monthly Obsessions post for September.)

After that, there was a wall of TVs with interviews. My favorite was one that appeared to be from the 1990s. He talked about what rock ‘n roll feels like and gestured to his heart. And that made me so happy because that’s what I feel, too.

Throwback Thursday: “Hang Me Up to Dry” by Cold War Kids

Cold War Kids have a band name that (to me at least) instantly brings to mind slouchy Converse and a disaffected vibe. I’m suddenly looking at the world through ’00s eyes, which means that it’s, you guessed it, time for a Throwback Thursday. Cold War Kids weren’t on heavy rotation for me back then until I watched Gossip Girl. Look: I freely admit my spectrum of high-low pop culture experience. And besides, the show, aside from its incredibly trashy viral marketing campaign and bad plot lines, really did have great music.

Anyway.

The song kicks off with slow and jangly guitar. Honestly, I had forgotten how deep “Hang Me Up to Dry” sounds, if that makes sense: the vocals are pitched low and, paired with the rhythm section, move only a little bit faster than molasses. It’s a little bit like “Float On” by Modest Mouse. Things shift with the chorus. Here, our lead singer’s voice gets a higher pitch. Now it’s reminiscent of Foster the People, if Foster the People wasn’t obscured by noisy, Passion Pit-esque punches of brilliant sound. That whole cluster of bands feels borrowed from each other; then again, that’s what music is, isn’t it? Cold War Kids, though, is distinct in that their songs have a looser feel, and this is particularly evident on “Hang Me Up to Dry.” The drums keep us steady, but as the song progresses, discordant piano gets sprinkled in. Towards the end, there’s an odd noise like a bicycle wheel spinning backwards.

Man, relistening to this song for this post made me remember how much I like this song. It’s a true jam and the laundry metaphor is very clever. I scrolled through the YouTube comments briefly, which is usually a mistake, but here it was mostly people reminiscing about their own connections to the song. Do you remember “Hang Me Up to Dry”? If so, what are your memories of hearing it?

Monthly Obsessions – August 2022

It was quite the busy month for me in terms of songs on repeat. I started things off with a major throwback: I hadn’t listened to Nicki Minaj in years. Pink Friday was a big album when it came out, and it will always make me think of college. I still haven’t heard “Super Freaky Girl,” and I don’t think I will; Nicki has fallen off my radar recently. Her early songs, however, as the kids say, “slap.” I guess I needed a motivation boost because the two songs of hers that I was listening to are major brags.

We’ve also got JAMC on there, because of course. “Sometimes Always” was a cover that I talked about this month. But the other songs on the list are, by and large, throwbacks as well, primarily to the ’80s and ’90s. Prince came on rotation, and “On the Dark Side” was a newer discovery.

“Spanish Sahara” is one of those iykyk songs: Misfits, anyone? Beach House was part of my early “indie” music tastes, bundled in with Cults and Sleigh Bells.

The newest song on the playlist is “American Teenager” by Ethel Cain. Wow. Sweeping Americana and a chorus that makes you want to pump your fist and yell along. Her voice has an amazing poignancy. I listened to this one over and over and over this month.

Covers Corner: “Sometimes Always” by Brakes

I’m honestly surprised that I haven’t written about this song, and particularly this cover, before. It’s really what started my obsession with the Mary Chain. I heard “Worry About It Later” by Brakes on an MTV show, then had Touchdown, its album, on repeat for months afterwards. From there, I dove into Brakes’ back catalogue. Give Blood isn’t my favorite of theirs, but “Sometimes Always” was the standout. I thought that it was an original until I did more research. And, well, the rest is history: I’m pretty much always listening to at least one Mary Chain song, I’ve been to three of their concerts, I know most of their releases, I’ve listened to interviews, etc., etc. As a friend of mine says, it’s on brand for me that my favorite band is an obscure indie rock outfit from the ’80s.

What’s interesting about the Brakes version is that it’s gender-flipped. The Pipettes provide Hope Sandoval’s vocals, but Eamon Hamilton is the main narrator. Instead of “you sure are lucky son/lucky son of a gun,” we get: “you sure are lucky girl/luckiest in the world.” That line spoke to me somehow when I was listening to this song over and over in my early college years. Although Brakes largely follows the acoustic sound of Stoned and Dethroned in their cover, they offer a punk-tinged edge on the bridge. There, the guitar is just a little bit louder and sharper. (All of Give Blood, really, is punk: see the short, blistering “Cheney” for an example. Eamon’s sneering accent is the perfect finishing touch.)

With these two songs, I can’t really pick a favorite. The cover is special to me for what it started; the original is special to me just because I love the Mary Chain. Below, as usual, are both.

Covers Corner: “Sledgehammer” by Harry Styles

I read a great article in Pitchfork about So by Peter Gabriel; they’ve been revisiting “significant albums of the past” recently. I’ve been listening “In Your Eyes” on repeat for the past several days, so the timing was perfect. Speaking of perfect timing: I’ve been itching to do another Covers Corner, and I’ve had this one on the list for a while.

The reason I wanted to, er, cover this cover is because I like “Sledgehammer” and I think that Harry Styles is a unique choice to do it. He’s been leaning into the artsy, gender bending side of music of late. “Sledgehammer” isn’t really that: it’s bluntly sexual and masculine. But Harry takes it on well. His voice actually sounds a lot like Peter Gabriel’s, which is impressive. Besides, the benefit of a cover is that oftentimes you can hear the lyrics more clearly. This is definitely the case here. Harry enunciates the lyrics without sounding forced or robotic. It helps me get more out of the song. Another aspect of Harry’s cover that I really like is that the backup singers stand out a lot more. They carry the chorus and call-and-response in a way that’s drowned out in the original.

What Harry maintains from the original is a sense of joy and even play. (I mean, as I mentioned in a previous Monthly Obsessions post, the metaphors in the lyrics can get a little ridiculous.) His voice is light and smooth; it’s like he’s singing with a straight face despite lines like “I will be your honey bee.” There’s seduction there. He manages to make the song subtle. It doesn’t hurt that the cover lacks the heavier drums that Peter Gabriel’s version has.

In terms of “which is better,” I’m leaning towards the original, actually: maybe that’s because it’s the one I heard first, or because I, too, enjoy silly come-ons made extra obvious. But as usual, I’m leaving both below; let me know which one you like! (I am, as usual, loathe to include YouTube links, but the Harry Styles version isn’t available on Spotify.)